Westerners have almost uniformly understood China since Mao as a liberalizing country. No longer do political campaigns bypass liberal principles in the name of revolution. And no longer does China pursue policies that limit foreign influence in the Chinese economy. Perhaps the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre awakened some to the lack of liberalization in China, but 25 years is long enough to foster forgetfulness or enable some to lessen the Massacre as an aberration in a liberalization narrative decades in the making. Such beliefs are easily understood but entirely misleading.
Certainly China today is vastly different today than it was under Mao. But because of the nearly total control of information in China and thus the Chinese citizenry's limited understanding of their own history, Xi Jinping is able to legitimize his rule, consolidate Party power, and ensure the stunted growth of liberalization by referencing the supposedly admirable tenets of Maoism. Hinted at by Business Insider, Xi is seemingly pursuing a strategy of what ought to be considered protochronism, or pseudohistorical nationalism. In other words, Xi is championing a hagiographical view of China's recent past, more or less because information control allows this, in order to create an increasingly conservative and docile Chinese citizenry that accepts his authority. Logically, the end result of this strategy is a Chinese citizenry that is more ideologically driven and thus less concerned with liberalization.
This idea is confirmed by recent statements made by China’s state media. Specifically, the Party notes that think tanks should build off of Marxist ideology to support the nation: “Think tanks should stick to Marxist ideology, follow the CPC's leadership and provide intellectual support to help rejuvenate the nation.” Moreover, per The Telegraph, the Party has recently launched media campaigns modeled after Maoist campaigns: “This month, state media announced plans to send filmmakers, artists and TV staff to live among ‘grassroots’ rural communities and ‘mining sites’ to ‘form a correct view of art,’ in a move compared to a Cultural Revolution-era ‘rectification campaign.’”
In sum, an uninterrupted narrative of post-Mao liberalization is elementary and misleading. Whereas the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre is the most poignant, albeit dated, reminder of this reality; the Party has unwaveringly pursued policies that stunt liberalization’s growth. Under Xi, liberalization has even reversed course. Propagandizing history and emphasizing national duty appear to be the latest tactics of Xi in his quest to thwart liberalization.